Having been involved in quite a few different sports, I can state that athletes generally dislike stretching after practice. Others may disagree and say that athletes don’t dislike stretching, they HATE stretching, but you get my point. (I should point out that many athletes appear to love stretching before practice, but I think that’s just because it delays the practice!)
While science is starting to point out certain stretches and routines that may be harmful, it is generally agreed that the right stretches performed after a workout go a long way towards initiating recovery through gentle relaxation of tight and fatigued muscles.
The problem is, no matter how much I educate my swimmers about the benefits of stretching, many still put in sub-par efforts at best. Some coaches have suggested I should threaten / punish them, but that’s doesn’t make the reluctant athletes change their mindset. I need to find a way to make them want to do it. Right?
Nothing has worked so far. My guess is that right after a practice the swimmers are tired and their muscles are fatigued. And it’s right at this point that we’re asking them to voluntarily subject their muscles to more discomfort. While discomfort during swimming can be directly connecting with swim performance, which they want, discomfort during stretching is at best indirectly connected with swim performance.
The More Popular Types of Stretching
When I first started competing I was aware of only 2 types of stretches: Static and Ballistic. And we would do both types before and after practice.
Static stretching is the most common type where you stretch a muscle for at least 20 seconds, and usually 30 seconds.
We were taught that about 2-3 seconds into the stretch our body protects the muscle be inhibiting the stretch, as well as adding pain signals to warn us the activity could cause damage. After 15 seconds or so, our body realizes everything is ok and releases the muscle, while stopping the pain signals. If we last through that 15 seconds then we can stretch without discomfort.
For swimmers these stretches often include trunk flexion, touching toes, and stretching the shoulders and lats. Back then we’d often try to touch our elbows behind our backs. If necessary, we’d have a teammate force our elbows to touch. Something that is now generally recognized as potentially damaging to shoulders.
The second type was ballistic stretching, also called bouncing. This is when we’d swing our arms vigorously to stretch them farther, or touch our toes by forcing our body down fast. Far less painful but much higher potential for injury.
As you can imagine from the above, traditional stretches involve discomfort on fatigued muscles, and are potentially damaging. It’s no wonder these aren’t popular!
Functional stretching, sometimes called dynamic stretching has also become popular. This involves an exaggerated and relaxed Range-of-Motion movement mimicking an actual movement in the sport. The problem for swimmers here is that they’d have to be in the pool for this, and we usually use all of our pool time for training and cool down. We need to find stretches that are appropriate for the deck.
There is one type of stretching that I was shown years ago, and it works incredibly well. Virtually no discomfort, and amazingly fast results. I can’t remember the name of it (the stretching is somewhat similar to Active Isolated Stretching), so we just call it 3-second stretching. Here’s how it works.
We’ll use toe touching as an example.
- Bend down and reach for your toes. Don’t bounce down into it, but be fairly aggressive in the stretch.
- Hold it for a full 3 seconds, and then stand back up.
- Relax for about 7 seconds.
- Repeat 8 times. Each time you go down you should be able to go a little farther.
Notice that with a stretch of only 3 seconds, the body hasn’t started protecting the muscle yet, so this means we can stretch farther and without discomfort. It’s effective as well, as we’ve had kids touch their toes within 2 weeks using this technique, when they hadn’t touched their toes in years.
The biggest problem, if you can call it one, is that stretching the various body parts that need it can take 7 or 8 minutes. Far longer than my swimmers are willing to tolerate.
So here we are. Effective stretching with almost no discomfort, and yet most swimmers STILL minimize or avoid them whenever possible.
I’m open to ideas here.